By JOANNE FOX
Tommy Murray drew on recollections as a bat boy to craft a home run of a book reminiscent of one of the dynamos of baseball in Northwest Iowa: St. John High School of Bancroft.
“My father, John, was one of two lay people at St. Mary’s in Storm Lake and the school’s high school social studies teacher and coach of everything,” he said. “My fondest memories included traveling with the Panther baseball team to do battle with powerhouse teams at Fonda Our Lady of Good Counsel, Cherokee Immaculate Conception and Early Sacred Heart.”
The Storm Lake native gleaned the background for his novel from years of watching “fathers in the bleachers living vicariously through their sons on the playing field and those same sons battling for victory.”
Between his graduation from the University of St. Thomas in 1978 and retirement from the Minneapolis Public Schools as a special education resource teacher in 2014, Murray crafted “Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball” in pieces of sentences and paragraphs. When Murray’s father began his battle with dementia, the goal to complete the book was hastened.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t rewrite and publish my story as fast as dementia robbed my father of his story and, eventually, his life,” he said. “The novel became a story I would give to my four children, and those who need to hear the account of quiet, pious men in a town where baseball isn’t just a sport – it’s a religion.”
The novel incorporates the stories of Holy Trinity High School students striving for an elusive state baseball title in the Kossuth County town of Cottage Park, Iowa, and their “seasoned” coaches who want that title in 1974 just as much as the players.
Until the final out, the single season is cleverly presented in chapters headed, “countdown to the finals.” It practically parallels the quest of Coach Vincent Meyer and his Bancroft Johnnies for the summer baseball title in 1980. Meyer’s teams won six fall titles, but could not secure a summer title, nabbing the No. 2 spot four times. The coach of 46 years died of a heart condition – at age 69 – in 1981, less than three months after retiring.
However, the action in Murray’s novel isn’t limited to the diamond and its pop-up flies, bunts and double-plays. Murray leaves nobody on base or safe at home as the reader is enlightened about the private lives of high school players struggling with egos, angst, misbehavior, teen pregnancy, abuse and death.
Equally compelling are the stories of the three elderly team leaders: Coach Al Murphy, 74 (who battles a heart condition like Meyer), Father John Ryan, 79, (reminiscent of diocesan priests, Father John Cullen of Clare and Msgr. Joseph “Smokey Joe” Schultes, St. John’s pastor, 1933-67, responsible for Bancroft’s baseball heritage and who often served as pitcher on the town’s baseball team) and Assistant Coach Edwin Gerald Gallivan or “Egg,” 84.
Much of the legacy of Murray’s book came from a baseball hero who pitched and won the first Catholic school state championship in Iowa in the 1943 Fall Baseball State Tournament.
“I was named for my Uncle Tommy,” he said, referring to Pvt. Thomas A. Murray, who upon graduation from high school became an American hero by sacrificing his life in the Philippines in World War II.
“I wanted to tell the story of those who could play the game and did in the baseball mecca of Bancroft,” he said. “The story line was whispered to me over four decades by holy ghosts, friendly ones, but dreadfully persistent that I never give up telling their story.”
Coming up on the horizon for Murray is another book.
“I’m rewriting a novel that I wrote 30 years ago, The Empty Set,” he said. “I hope this one doesn’t also take another 40 years to complete.”
Tommy Murray will offer copies of his book, “Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball,” at Holidazzle 2017, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Dec. 2, at the Main Street Pub and Grill, Bancroft. Despite Bancroft St. John High School closing in 1989, the youth baseball program continues at the Bancroft Memorial Park, named in honor of those killed in the two world wars. All commission proceeds benefit Bancroft Memorial Park. For more information, email Murray at email@example.com.